A Look into the Killing Fields (1984) – an analysis and critique

Visually Speaking, a critique and analysis of the 1984 film, The Killing Fields

kill

A photographer is trapped in Cambodia during tyrant Pol Pot’s bloody “Year Zero” cleansing campaign, which claimed the lives of two million “undesirable” civilians.

Director:

Roland Joffé

Writer:

Bruce Robinson (screenplay)

*****

VISUALLY SPEAKING: 3 OCTOBER 2015 – THE KILLING FIELDS

To start a movie set in Pol Pot’s Cambodia with the background prattle of the worst of the worst in American politics, the Watergate bugging and ensuing constitutional crisis, Nixon’s approval rating – it’s all in stark contrast, the American crisis and the politics of foreign war, to the abrupt explosion at the beginning of the film, which has the effect of ruining breakfast for the main protagonist, a reporter and his translator – and you see the chaos, the fire and the panic, and to think of the American’s back at home, listening to their crisis over breakfast, discussing it, nodding in approval or shaking their heads dismissively, it shows the comfort at a distance we often have when approaching horrors of this magnitude. To the people in Cambodia as depicted in this film, there is no such distance, this distance was not an option for those in the Killing Fields, when you didn’t see fire in a fuzzy, black and white television set in the safety of your home. In the Killing Fields, the fire was bright red and close enough to lick your face.

The journalist responds by snapping pictures of the chaos, a dead body in the tangled metal of a wiry bicycle frame, until he’s whisked away by his translator to a plane. As they are about to take off, a military man is poised to stop them. The New York Time’s reporter responds by reminding him by the Cooper/Church amendment – and because of its protection, the military man agrees to let them go. Rules and treaties, amendaments, these things still could have saved him, but didn’t. That’s a part of a less savage world, despite the savageness of it, his plane leaves him in this country, at the moment when America has bombed Cambodia. This is the conflict that sets the film in motion.

The reporter still uses threats in political terms, with the implied exposure of his future story (which would become the basis of his story) the most polite type of violence. Back at the hotel, the reporter learns that because of a computer malfunction, a B-52 bomber dropped its entire payload on Neak Luong, leaving a homing beacon in the middle of town. When asked about casualties, a man at the hotel replies in cold, political terms: ‘You’ll be briefed tomorrow.’ He is told: ’55 military, something like 35 civilians,’ the casualness underscoring the prevalent attitude of the west at the time. When pressed, he changes his story: ‘We hear it’s in the 100s – but don’t quote me on that.’

The question seems to be for a different time when Sydney, our reporter, asks, in Hollywood tal, ‘Will there be a bloodbath when the Khmer Rouge come to town?’
“Americans take themselves so seriously.”
With the Yanks still out at sea, the song finishes.
The next short is memorable: the reporter with his translator sitting in a row-boat beside the rusted ruins of a sailing ship – possibly a war ship. The Yanks are still at sea. The outrages are superficial, as are the fears and happiness of the culture he represents, the culture he is a part of, the culture he helped to cultivate and establish. When Sydney finds a woman whose ship was destroyed, her husband killed, his motivation remains largely political, asking: ‘How many bombs?’ He doesn’t seem to register the question put to him, about justice: ‘Was the pilot arrested?’

When a prison truck shows up, Dith Pran, his translator, tells Sydney about the Khmer Rouge soaking rags in gasoline and stuffing it into the mouths of POWs and setting them on fire; he continues pretending to snap photos until a soldier points at a gun on him. He takes it lightly, saying twice: ‘It’s alright’ He is then taen away in a jeep as two prisoners are kicked to the ground, presumably to be executed, and the camera pans away, to a lone man walking among the rubble to the sound of American rock and roll.
When Sydney and Dith Pram are taken to a building under the guard of a man loading a pistol, Dith Pram confides his worries about being arrested to Sydney, and being responsible for their being there. Sydney tells him he wants cigarettes. He’s still a part of the soft war; when he’s told he can’t take a piss, a common comfort not really considered a luxury in America, that’s when he declares: ‘I’ve had enough of this bullshit,’ and gets up, as if to leave. It’s only when he’s stopped, the barrels of rifles filling the scene, does he seem to understand. The rifle barrels are frozen, mid-frame, making a profound, albeit silent point. Sidney promises his translator and friend Dith Pram, ‘I won’t leave you.’

This all changes when the sound of halicopters is heard, realizing a press corp has been brought in to ‘sanitize the story.’ The demands to leave, and is referred to a higher officer, who refuses his passage out, saying: ‘You came in on a boat.’ Sydney is still there for the story, and that’s all he seems to care about; that is, until he sees a dead woman, up-close and personal on a scretcher, covered in blood. The fire is no longer black and white, and he no longer has the comfort of the distance afforded by a television screen: the fire has licked his face. The camera hangs on his expression, his eyes, and dissolves to 10 March 1975.

When he’s told he has made ‘the front page’ he says, ‘We must be doing something right,’ earning the uneasy smile of his translator, whose wife has become increasingly worried about the Khmer Rouge. This is the dramatic conflict, the difference between the gimmick conflict, the telling of the story, and the story as it unfolded to the unwitting participants in this great drama, much of which remains unknown in the west. It is handled in speeches to the press, as 2 million refugees are taken from the capital. As usual, the aggressors blame the opposition for the fight, but only when they feel they may be defeated, when there is dignity in defeat – but only if you lose while still being right.

The following scenes are disorienting: there’s typing, tourists from South Carolina coming in, Gerald Ford and his concerns with the politics of Cambodia, and at the embassy – the French embassy, which was a relic from the French colonial rule that Pol Pot so despised – people are flooding in asking for Asylum, as Sydney becomes desperate in his search for Dith Pram, who, out of sheer chance, doesn’t get through the gates. [Gerald] Ford – politically – agrees that America ‘shouldn’t get involved in Cambodia’ – Millions die.

The Killing Fields is a movie about real fear and real need versus superficial fears and needs, short courage versus real, moral and physical courage. Pram loses his entire family in the evaculation, and in their first moments alone, Syd has Pram smile for a photograph [keep in mind, the actor playing Dith Pram was a real life survivor of the Cambodian Killing Fields – who would go on to win an Oscar, an oscar that would be dull and drained of color by the time of his death, as he had held onto it so much.] Always obliging, Pram smiles for the camera, and does so with a very understated sadness, expressing the mute, inner turmoil of being involved in the largest cultural suicide in human history.

The Khmer Rouge arrive victorious and celebrated. Syd is shaving, contrasted with the scenes outside of the embassy, with a razorblade to his throat, illustrating the false sense of comfort there is to be found in such empty routines. The parade outside is contrasted by scenes of a children’s hospital, where children are victims, and outside, where children – who must be younger than 15 – are the villains, clearly put forward as such, as the Khmer Rouge tank rolls in. Chaos: Pram gives away his water just to join Syd and the other correspondents on the helicopter. Syd loses it temporarily, eating the yellow flower – a common decal for the Khmer Rouge – in stupid desperation, knowing it won’t help him or anyone in his company. Murder: and Dith Pram prays. ‘A prayer I didn’t understand, but I hoped it was in my favor.’

After seemingly being freed, Syd and Pram leave to find alsbolute mayhem: tanks carying boisterous, gun-hoisting Khmer Rouge soldiers, fires everywhere, photojournalists taking photographs out of habit in a daze, all leading to the giant march, a huge crowd, thousands and then millions, moved by unseen hands to a place they know only they must go, as the capital Phnom Penh becomes a ghost town, eerie monoliths of the modern world emptied as Pol Pot’s experiment to take civilization back to Year Zero begins. In Washington, this mass exodus, this symphony of fear and terror, is a talking point, a new’s story, another issue to be discussed and dissected, while people are fed to the machine of mechanized terror.

What do people do in the face of such fear and horror? The reporters collapse into the humor, like memento mori, the kind of humor that developed during the black plague in Europe. At the same time, a roll of film is desperately being sought to save Dith Pram’s life, to keep him in the Embassy instead of being forced on the long death march into the country, a march that would claim the lives of 1 in 4 Cambodians, the saddest parade imaginable. The story remains personable, and all of this has taken place by the half-way point, the role of politics and war is experienced by most coldly at the French embassy, while listening to calm reports inside while, just outside, a taxi has just arrived only to drop off his cargo, cargo consisting of two dead pigs, large and bloated and pale, on the steps outside.

The subplot surrounding the photo manipulation and passport fakery amount to nothing, and is perhaps the most subtle comment on the nature of images and press in a world of such horror, unimaginable to the comfortable, debating the ethics of wiretapping. Their wizardry with cameras and storytelling serve to engender real change or security for Dith Pram, who has so far been one of the few wholly innocent characters in the story. The next scene is one of the most tragic and beautiful in the film: Pram’s depature in the rain, walking along the road toward The Killing Fields, contrasted with Syd’s return to America, and his on-going seach for Pram in the countryside of Cambodia is set to contrast Syd’s discovery of the difference between real war and a soft war, and this was his way to fight a real war with that same soft war of politics and journalism, in the gamble of a hope to save on good man among millions thinking, perhaps, to save one good man among millions will somehow allow dignity to be preserved, the dignity of life, friendship, and decency.

Syd may have escaped The Killing Fields, but the naive reporter who began the story died a long time ago, and there’s one thing about death that will forever hurt the living: the dead don’t have to live with their passing. The search for Pram becomes the defining characteristic of his character, a part of who he became. And ge goes through the motions, sifting through photographs, making calls, listening to reports on the ongoing conflict in Cambodia – when the bombing, the bombing that sat the events of the film in motion, wasn’t an accident: it was intentional and intentionally a secret, and the film does well to put a human fac on what would be, for most people, a faceless, unrelatable mass, and when we connect with a person, we, through this, connect to some aspect of the struggle, caught between opposing forces of powers, each seeking to impose their will on a (mostly) innocent population, the will of the named few upon the often nameless, lost multitudes that history hasn’t so much forgot as history never really knew. Those are the bones Pram stumbles over as he walks lonely through the desolated landscape of a world reset, the Pol Pot doctrine, Year Zero has become the most profound example of cultural suicide in known history, and very few films show war without making some part of it exciting, the violence especially, but in this film, the violence doesn’t excite you: it grabs you by the throat and forces you to numb yourself or become a more acutely feeling, empathetic human being, to abandon cynicism as an excuse to do nothing and embrace, foolishly or not, the optimism of sentamentality, delusional or not, for there is hope in that.

The third act of the film begins with Syd’s acceptance speech for an award bestowed upon him for his coverage of the conflict in Cambodia. He addresses the pervasiveness of abstraction in the political language of war, and the reality and contrast between this way of talking about war and violence and how it really is, bringing it home with him, to hope that if someone can see – like the audience – and know someone, the character of a person who was forced to live through this, maybe they will move past the polemic of condemnation or support when it comes to military force in support or in opposition to foreign armies, especially when not fighting a direct enemy of America. He implores the largely indifferent crowd to stop clapping for themselves long enough to realize the way this very performance only perpetuates the theatre of war as a background to the mechizations of power and the conscious, meticulously crafting and selling of war as a point of pride to the American public.

There are many different ways to wage war: there is a cowardice to the soft war approach, the kind based very much on superficial, as opposed to super-fears; but there is a nobility in the soft war when the battlefield is the human conscience, the fight to expose corruption and by fighting and opposing rally others to this fight, and with this soft war in the real, much more horrific wars. Pop Pot’s experiment with Year Zero was a fight to justify the rebellion of the oppossed with the response of more an philosophically ratonalized cultural suicide, but it remains to this day a distant outrage among the western, civilized wold, which, though capable of fighting the soft war nobly and non-violently, sell fear as hope and war as peace instead of peace to end war and hope to negate that fear. When the people of compassion and kindness are pushed to obscurity, out of positions that would afford them the power to make decisions for a genuine and lasting good, to sway for good or ill the tipping point of a country into a chosen war, a more tangible apocalypse, where dissenting opinons aren’t tip-toed around or heresy, or treason among rivals in the culture war. In the Killing Fields you tip-toe around the bones of generations lost, engineered by someone who very much prefers the skeleton to the organism, the labor of animals to the development of character and education.

It has been said that the first casualty of war is truth. Then it must follow that the greatest of war criminals are the most seductive of liars, whose charisma is expended with the intent to sway others to toward an imagined, false ideal of honor or glory, or even in victory, the heroism is in spite of the makers of war, not because of it, and the ultimate message of a film which seeks to contrast the different wars we all must fight is the danger of suffering and tragedy’s inherent attraction and marketability. In the end, Syd is trying to save Pram, an innocent child of war, while Pram, still alive, is himself trying to find a way to save an innocent, making the parallels between the characters more poignant and sharp, in that when faced with such obstacles, the human animal becomes its most pure form of good or its most pure form of animal and the victory for the soldiers and journalists is moving the needle towards a moral exorcism, if only slightly, to allow us, as viewers and citizens of the global community, to remember what has always been one of the very few reasons to fight: to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

In The Killing Fields, the main characters, like we the audience, start as bystanders to a movement we don’t quite understand, giving us a sideline view to one of the most profound human dramas of the 20th century. But, not content to leave us mere bystanders, we’re allowed the true measure of the various struggles within ever greater struggles, letting us be a part of the search for dignity and nobility and warmth in a world that is ever colder, ever crueler, with many Pol Pot’s looking to do very similar things, and standing between them, sometimes, is not the heads of state in the most powerful nations on the Earth, but the people who risk their lives to get the story to the public, hoping that it will connect with the most empathetic centers of our character and soul and move us toward action in the name of peace and goodwill, with the motivation being consolation and comfort, instead of conquest and destruction. In the war between life and death, our guides are sympathetic and relatable, never exaggerated beyond what they were: decent men in indecent times, trying to survive with their lives and, if possible, their capacity for love. By one conflict or another, large or small, our capacity for hope and empathy may be the only true moral compass when navigating The Killing Fields.

On Inspiration – 25 July 2016

Inspiration is a great motivational force in the creation of art, in the performance of duty, in writing and painting and music. We hear about the Muse, Calliope for writing poetry (there are nine according to Hesiod — including Clio, discoverer of history and guitar. Seriously) and we assume that all great art is great because of inspiration, genius, or prodigious skill. Mozart’s music is often seen as inexplicable works of effortless talent and ability. This may be true of some of his music, but it does a disservice to what was surely the product of a life of endless hours of practice, time, and effort put towards the creation of such works as Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, and his piano concertos. It makes an excuse for any failure on behalf of the practitioner of creation, to think that all such work is the product of nature’s endowment, an endowment not afforded everyone at birth. It is an excuse.

This assumption of prodigy can misplace the admiration in the creation of such work: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, took nearly 20 years; of course he had great natural talent and ability, but talent is nothing without being willing to put that kind of effort into a work of art, to spend that much time getting it right. Surely there was great inspiration behind the movement that brought those works to our attention, but to admire only talent or genius is misplaced: the admiration of study, hard work, and dedication should be just as important.

If everyone in the business of creating art was waiting on the dictates of the muse, we’d might have less terrible artwork but assuredly we’d have less great works too. less works we assume to be the products of great inspiration and motivation. Inspiration, then, is less a divine flourish that spills purely and perfectly onto a page and more of a constant factor in pushing someone towards the completion of their work. Do not wait for Calliope by the time she arrives, you should be too busy to notice. After all, no great work of art has ever been accomplished by thinking really hard about it. 

Pretentious Spiel About Art, 7 July 2015

This essay was originally suggested by my weird and wonderful friend Diana. She’s a writer, a mother, and Doctor Who aficionado.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as we all know. We’ve all heard that at some point in our lives. And it’s true.  We find beauty in many different things and what we find beautiful is as varied as we are. Something can be aesthetically beautiful. That’s fancy talk for “it’s pretty.” Without an objective beauty, the term risks becoming arbitrary. A Picasso painting, for example, can be pleasing to the eye without really making sense, simply because of its arrangement of shapes and colors. And screaming animals depicted in forms of bloody black-and-white horror overseen by an evil-eye and a ghost on top of a dead soldier with stigmata are so delightful. Oh, Picasso, you cur! How fun!

guernicaThe most brutal attack a Frenchman ever inflicted upon a Nazi.

It certainly isn’t for everyone, Picasso’s style, and I’ve actually heard someone say, “A kid could paint something like that…” Which is interesting, considering the paintings Picasso did as a kid…

earlypicasso

…makes the stuff your mother hung on the fridge look like a big pile of shit…

picassoearlyEven your Dragonball Z drawings.*

Maybe something less … Picasso-y? For the sake of whatever this argument is, I’ll post a similar painting done in a different style, a different way to communicate ideas. And that’s realism as in, ‘what it looks like when I look at it.’ This was a revolutionary concept. Art historians and Jacopo della Quercia know that Caravaggio was an extremely influential painter and had many imitators. He also killed a pimp, spread profane rumors about his rivals, and the pope sentenced him to Death. By beheading. He was still a successful painter. Here’s his Death of Mary …

caravaggio

  Originally commisioned by the Carmalite Sisters in Trastevere, it was rejected after a rumor spread that Caravaggio had used a prostitute as a model for the Madonna. Seriously.

What is the difference between Caravaggio’s realistically painted depiction of a fictional account or Picasso’s exaggerated depiction of a real event? Caravaggio used models and costumes. Picasso had no models (only lots and lots of wives) and used only his imagination. They both convey the same feelings and have a lot of things in common, despite, you know, one looking like the work of a kid…

picassokid2His career would make more sense if he was Benjamin Button.

You can even find beauty in the most unlikely of places. Hell, for example, is a beautiful place to take in the sights, traveling on an unexpected adventure with Dante and his guide virgil, through rivers of sinners, winds of sinners, forests of sinners, the city of Dis (contains sinners) and we can travel to the heights of paradiso with Dante’s sweet sweet Beatrice. There is beauty in both journeys, to heaven and hell.

hbosch

Tonight’s nightmare brought to you by Hieronymus Bosch!

One of the most beautiful moments in classical tragedy takes place in Sophocles’ play Antigone. You might be familiar with Sophocles. He’s that guy whose play Oedipus Rex led to Freud’s creation of the Oedipus Complex, cementing the status of Sophocles’ masterpiece as a play forever remembered as, ‘The one where the guy fucks his mom.’ I understand completely. The guy fucked his mom! Besides, he could have gotten away with it. His nobility was disgust in himself. Now in Sophocles’ true masterpiece Antigone, the titular Antigone was a poor woman who went against the rules of law, the advice of her sister, and against the natural god damn biological instinct for self-preservation by openly defying a king in an era where that was very much frowned upon for the sake of her brother Polyneices’ honor. Just because her family honor was insulted, she destroys the King’s nobility and claim to the moral highground, which leads to a whole bunch of suicidin’. And she does it with a fierce kindness and appreciation for life. Murder by kindness. It’s what Polyneices would’ve wanted.

antigone

Considered the archetypal strong female character. Antigone was such a bad-ass only the strongest of men could play the role. And also, all the female roles.

What is beauty though, to me? Real talk: Beauty is the first time you felt the thrill of holding hands, the first kiss when your heart skipped a beat and your stomach fluttered, when you saw a shooting star for the first time, a speck, a meteorite dissolves away. Chopin and piano music, whiskey and wine. And art.


nunorgasmFor your patient waiting, I give you: the most tasteful depiction of a nun’s orgasm you will ever see.

The [beauty] of a picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky, and unfeeling act, to send it out into the world.

markrothko                                                                 Rothko, 1958, Committing Art.

*I apologize to any Dragonball Z fan-art aficionados out there I may have offended.

If you enjoyed this essay, stick around and check out some of material that’s twice as long with half the jokes.
Thanks to my good friend Diana for suggesting this topic and everyone else, whoever you are, for reading. If you liked this article, leave a comment or let me know on Twitter @MrBrandonNobles, where I occasionally say
stuff about things. 

The Frame Gallery, short story – 27 June 2016

The frame above the fireplace has been empty for many years. A gilded artificial vernier, plastic with the finish of cured oak. It was well-worn, splintered along the holdspiece, cracked along the horizontal centerpiece. From a distance and in the proper light, you could mistake it for the real world, the world going on behind and beyond the empty spaces.

I left a candle just beneath it to highlight the imitation wood, the candle topped with a lanterns glass, glowing dome. I hang another on the nail above the patio, sometimes it’s placement on the lookout over the grounds framed it well.

I keep the little feeding trays, the red nectar left out for the Ruby-throated hummingbird, and sometimes a ruby thrush, darker than the hummingbird or bluebird, and when it lands on the string of electric cables running between the power grids.

I have to be in the right place for the frame to hold it together. There were hints of nail polish dabbled about the patches of naked tin beneath the varnish. It would be replaced, yes, perhaps on the patio in the shadow of Appalachia.

Perhaps the veranda? The pagoda under tatty umbrellas that always unfurled with a smattering of dust and the murmur of rustling polyester. Or the vegetable garden, Peabody had liked it there. The curator’s oft-quipping parakeet. I had been in the crypt of the Roland family, where the mother and her husband lay, ancestors to the current curator ; someday his son would heat the boilers and flip the generators in the morning.

I was set to curate the drawing room, and had ventured to the vaults below because of this strange knocking. Like a heart beat against wood. It was a haggard heart beat, coming from an anonymous, standing casket. I remember being nervous in the dark, leaning against the thin plywood. It startled him, but intrigued by the patter and not morbidly, he opened it up and out flew the parakeet, my sweet Canary!

The foyer was appointed with upholstery from the turn of the 1 9th century, fine cushions and settee, an upright piano in the floor gallery. It was silent now, save for the tinkling to be heard as Peabody came in upon the keys from an open window. The foyer, the fore-room and antechamber to the soup room at the base of the polished marble stairs barred by a simple velvet tassel, knotted and folded and pulled.

The Gallery once had fine recreations adorning the show piece of the gabled Manor home-Turner’s slaveship, a replica of Rembrandt’s famously stolen Storm on the Sea of Galilee – like the famous heist up north where the genuine article, Rembrandt’s storm, was cut from its frame along with works of Monet and Degas. Sketches by Velazquez and Delacroix, and all of them were taken that same night Rembrandt’s seascape disappeared from that insured gallery.

For all that is not there, it is amusing, thought the curator, those wonderful works long gone has its place held by the frame it was torn from. That gallery, there and quite famous, famous for all that’s no longer there, perhaps better known for their taking than their beauty. The empty frame is there, holding a spot at the table for ghosts.

My empty frames, and I’ve 3 now, but I’ve no heart to fill them with the donations that come in. Poor works by local artists come in often and I ship them out to the historic center for framing. The one that arrived briefly before an author, tall and gaunt and followed by a slender brunette, carrying paintings under her arm. When I pulled up to my convex lens and looked over the dedication. The first was an obvious flattery of this young woman before me.

The painting was lovely in the right light – but more the face, that painting a poor imitation but nevertheless awkward, as she was withdrawn into herself, perhaps uncomfortable with carrying the idealized portrait of her as a Satyr with soft horns and softer hair, dark brown with a hint of welcoming garnet and ever softer before smearing into white, a highlight giving shape to her soft countenance. The Satyr in the painting a face as warm as the color of milk and just as sweet. There was love, yes. Peabody squawked.

I sat it against the wall and looked at the second work she held. Much smaller, and much louder and desperate – this little origami figure, outlined in hasty charcoal but it blurred just right into the dark beneath the sun, a sweltering, having transmission tower, dwarfing the little ragged figures whose outlines were suggested with studied passion. At the end of a sidewalk a child bounded forward, off into the blur of the great Sun. But as I attached my convex lens, I saw the writing along the edges. The elderly move more slowly, the curator thought, retracing the panic of the first outline in this small painting… An apology? Yes, he does… And he’s going to pay it.
Squawk, squawk, squawk!
You’re right, they both will.

He’d given it to her, that Satyr or wood nymph and I can see it still, though the empty frames at the Rose Hill Historic Site still hang in the event their bodies are found and somehow stuffed back in. The maiden I found to be named Kathryn Hide, and the stand in for the lovely maiden was her portrait. The details come back sweet as spring, and he had not painted it for her, but for himself – because he couldn’t say it with words. Or maybe for her to see herself as he did? Perhaps he painted her to try to hold on in case she left. Yes, of course she will.

When they were out about their tour of the rest of the Manor and plantation, I rearranged my empty frames as to put them together, if briefly, to refill the frame some lonely night with Peabody on the curator’s shoulder, squawking. I do hope we see them again, the Curator thought, and sighed, rising to his feet, weight on his walking cane. Come, let’s go prepare the gallery.

Theatre and Culture, 24 June 2015

 

How Historical Fiction Influences Culture and Identity

Theatre may have started as an organizing force, an excuse for fellowship and ritual in the ancient world, such as what we know of its development in Ancient Greece. At first, it was just for men – and even when there were female characters, they were portrayed by men. Even so, it was a way for a community of shared interests, leading to more than a collection of individuals – culture. That’s a small word, culture. And vague, and hard to use in its broadest sense, in the full scope of what it offers (and what it takes).

It is the sum total of a people, their hopes and values, their fears and regrets. It does more than tie a people together. It forms the basis of a collected consciousness; it gives us heroes to admire and attempt to follow, and villains to despise and, shamefully, get a measure and bit of understanding about the darker side of human nature and ourselves. The collected mythology of a culture is a projection of their unconscious, and through that we get a glimpse into who they were. You can get a better sense of who the English were at the turn of the 16th century through the works of Shakespeare than you can from historians, since historians recount the deeds of the extraordinary, and writers recount the deeds of the ordinary as well and, ironically, it is more extraordinary to read. Shakespeare was able to use the past as a lens to focus on the very real religious schism of his age, something Kip Marlowe would do also do in his Satanic drama in Dr Faustus.

In plundering the more traditional histories recounted in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, Shakespeare was able to create an anatomy of the era, examining the lowborn and the high and mighty, giving the newly excommunicated England a sense of who they were and what their stories would be. ‘An island unto itself’ is vaguely reminiscent of Richard III’s line in Act V, Scene VI of Henry VI: ‘I am myself alone.’ Shakespeare did this in a way that Holinshed never could, by making history into something poetic and resonant, and–most importantly–entertaining. This is not to discredit Holinshed; I just couldn’t imagine a crowd of theatre patrons thrilling at the recitation of the following as a dramatic soliloquy:
The situation of our region, lieng ne’ere unto the north, dooth cause the heate of our stomaches to be of somewhat greater force: therefore our bodies doo crave a little more ample nourishment, than the inhabitants of the hotter regions are accustomed withall, whose digestive force is not altogether so vehement.”

The same is true of Homer and Virgil, whose characters and struggles are as revealing as Livy’s formal histories, all of which serve to give us an idea about the character of the age — the people living then and there, as a lot is to be gleaned from the comparisons of Livy’s accounts of the Second Punic War with Polybius’. (Citation: Hannibal’s War by J. F. Lazenby). Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid  have long stood in for lack of historical sources, giving us, if not the true account of history as it happened, but, as Graves explains through Livy in I, Claudius: ‘It is important to capture the true spirit, of history, to give life to the characters and people, more than it is to be slavishly devoted to the tedium of dry fact.” Which his companion, Pollio, immediately rebuffs.

Future historians will learn more about the character of Americans in the early 21st century from the books of Jacopo della Quercia than traditional historians, as he has been a part of a resurgent academia that lends itself to humor and is therefore more accessible to lay audiences (including myself). His articles and works, such as The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy and License to Quill, afford us a perspective not possible through traditional histories, and succeed as history and entertainment, offering a unique, rare insight into the character of the modern world–by using the past to look into the character of the age and toward the future, in a manner very analogous to Shakespeare; and in doing so manages to reveal the intrigue and obsessions of the modern world–in an age where we look for the truth in fiction and for the fiction in popular accounts of truth, which is often the case in a culture of conspiracy, which I have linked above for review.

Dry histories, such as those of Holinshead, Polybius, Cassius Dio, and Seutonius will never succeed in the way that Shakespeare’s plays have, or in the same way that Robert Graves’ Claudius books will, which drew from Seutonius’ The Twelve Caesars (itself the subject of much debate about the authenticity of its accounts) and the works of Polybius, Livy, and Cassius Dio, as Robert Graves writes in the foreword to Claudius the God. There is a unique way by which we find truth in fiction, and through finding this truth, either about society or about human nature, it expands our ideas about the past and our place in the present.

These pieces of literature may exist outside our sphere of influence, and are ultimately beyond our control, but when we put those pieces together, from history and entertainment and culture, the end result is a reflection of who we are; it is the building of the mirror, and it is in this reflection, these glimpses into our motivations and desires, our fears and neuroses, the impulses behind our thoughts and beliefs–this is what literally defines us. It is the microcosm, the smaller creature in contrast to the macrocosm, the larger organism that is the culture.

Poetry, the Waltz & Open Ellipses – 3 June 2016

 

The musical quality of language in verse and prose 

Before I began writing seriously, as in for money, I was more inclined towards music. I enjoyed playing the guitar and my slightly-shit electric piano. I knew what a waltz was, in music at least, but I never imagined that this tempo, this recurring punctuation in threes, could be used to craft a musical connotation to literature. That changed when I read Naked Lunch for the first time.

          An ellipse in literature requires a broad explanation. First, an ellipse in language relies on the assumption of a present transverse or transitional glide, so you can leave them out to keep the waltz type meter in your work, and when this is done, the words are implied and the ellipse is open. An open ellipse in English is equal to leaving out prepositions and relationship establishing words, such as in a third person singular present indicative, such as ‘is’ (n.)

          In British English it is common to say, ‘She was in hospital for days.’ While in American English the ellipse is closed by providing past tense singular indicatives: ‘She was in the hospital.’ The British English sentence contains an open ellipse, while its American counterpart closes the ellipse by supplying definitive article ‘the.’ In this case, the closes the ellipse.

          ‘The’ is an external possessive adjective and is used before singular or plural nouns which denote reference transition. Without the definitive article, without such notation or reference transition, the ellipse remains open. In the closing of an ellipse you fill in what would otherwise be representations of obvious words which can be put to a noun as a modifier. Of course, adjectives can modify nouns and identify nouns as well.

          One of the most famous authors to use open ellipses in the modern era is William S. Burroughs, and Naked Lunch, as I’ve said, is what made me understand the nature of the open ellipse and the closed ellipse. To show how he was able to maintain this pattern, I will denote each sentence from the opening segment with an [x] which will also show words that would close the ellipse. It is a famous opening and it changed the way I viewed the possibilities of literature. In a sense, I learned that expression had no rules [x) and that (x) art was not bound by custom or rules of what art is supposed to be. For Victorian purists, the next line of prose may well drive you crazy. That’s what makes it so wonderful. Like Rothko, to baffle was the point: because when you’re baffled, you’re either forced to think, or walk away–and that’s exactly what the author, and painter, respectively, wish for you to do. Think or walk away.

          The opening of Naked Lunch was originally a “naughty present” from my oldest step brother, Daniel. He thought he had given me the equivalent of a Penthouse. And as I read the book, I saw the profanity, I saw an urban sprawl where people were sold and, to make it worse, wished to be sold. I didn’t think the homosexual parts seemed to be anymore profane than any other descriptions I had read. I mean, when it comes to love making in literature, Burroughs is no Hemingway–but he never tries to be. He can write in any style he’d wish, but he chose to write the opening to his masterpiece in this form. Once again, omitted words that are implied, whose inclusion would close an opened ellipse, are in parentheses. Remember the pattern of three, the Waltz.

3        I can feel (the) heat closing in,
2        (I can) feel them (out) there making their moves – split ellipse, partially closed.

1        [x) setting up their devil doll stoolpigeons,

3        Crooning over my1 spoon and dropper2 – dual ellipse, open.

          [that] I throw away1 {at} Washington Sq. Station2 – dual ellipse, partially closed.

2        Vault a turnstile [two steps down] the iron stairs – tripal ellipse, closed.

1        Catch [an] uptown A-Train. Closed ellipse, suggestive.

 

In case you want to see how it is written in the opening of the book:

          I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stoolpigeons crooming over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Sq. Station, vault a turnstile, two steps down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A-train.

          The purpose of what may seem, thus far, a pointless tirade about nitpicking for a theory’s purpose, but, although that may be true, the point is to illustrate how close literature is intuitively related to song–the waltz in particular due to its patternation being resolved in triplets, based on a repeating or extended phoneme arrangement.

          In another example, Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, elliptic patterns of extended ellipses are in 3/4th time signature groupings. A definitive ellipse is a three word title. Symmetrical phonemes occur when two ellipses during a sentence divide the subject into three words and the object into three words. An ellipsis is a three-syllable word and is definitive in relationship to meter and should be just before a fullstop. In looking at the Ballad of Reading Gaol, especially when transitions are removed, ellipses in language acquire an apparent, unconscious lilt of resolving threes.

          With slouch [and] swing

          Around the ring

          (we) Trod (the) Fools Parade

          (we) did not care, (we) knew we were

          (The) Devil’s own brigade.

In this instance, slouch and swing–an adjective, descriptive, set-up for the mass noun The Fool’s Parade–itself a symmetrical ellipse–revolves around the same three syllable phoneme that shows action as description. Slouch and swing show the manner of its target, the fool’s parade. Eliminating reference in transition allows not only for intuitive assumption on behalf of the reader, but makes the reference the reader’s choice. Here’s the diagram of the former stanza with notation:

          (With1) slouch and swing

          Around the ring

          [We Trod2)

          The Fool’s Parade

          [We1] did not care

          (We2) knew we were     

          (The) Devil’s own brigade.

A definitive ellipse is most common in American titles, or can be turned into one by blurring the definitive or identifying article, such as ‘the.’ A definitive ellipse, in titles, are most often, in English, begin with a definitive article, or transition to the noun. Russian doesn’t have a definitive article, and in speech words such as ‘am,’ ‘is,’ and always, ‘the,’ and ‘of,’ are left out. Consider Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’s rendering in Russian: Hamlet: Denmark Prince. The and of are dropped in titles as they are in common Russian speech.

          The definitive article the and of are implied, and the ellipse is open, because it’s closed in English rendering: Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark. The definitive ellipse is the most common mechanism behind book titles. Originally, the title I considered for this book was Language and Literature. Instead, The Living Word seemed more dynamic and apt in its representation of the content extant in this half-thesis half pareidolic exercise. Consider popular book titles that are definitive ellipses, and I’ll start with mine because I firmly believe in nepotism: Songs of Galilee, The Dream Machine, The Make-Believe Ballroom, The Lizard’s Tale, The Echo Chamber, The Chameleon Mirror, and one ellipsis, Nobody. And now for some examples that you may recognize and respect:

          The Color Purple, In Cold Blood, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Great Gatsby, War and Peace, The Penal Colony, Through the Looking-Glass, Unweaving the Rainbow, The Selfish Gene, The Descent of Man, Three Blind Mice, The Dharma Bums, The Western Lands, Homage to Catalonia, Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Little Princeetc, etc. Please do not take the obvious implication that I’m listing all the books I can see on my bookshelves, as it is not true. A friend has my copy of The Dharma Bums.

          Another aspect of titles that I appreciate requires a tricky explanation. To put it plainly, there are books whose titles are the books. Lets say that a novel comes out called The Empathy Device, and it’s about how books help people understand empathize with others, and in reading it, they understand and empathize with others. This makes the title of the book the book. Another example is one of my own attempts at realizing that concept: Counterpane, and Other Poems, was a collection of poems I released in 2011. The title Counterpane was a nod to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Land of Counterpane:                             

                   When I was sick and lay a-bed,

          I had two pillows at my head,

          And all my toys beside me lay,

          To keep me happy all the day.

 

          And sometimes for an hour or so

          I watched my leaden soldiers go,

          With different uniforms and drills,

          Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

 

          And sometimes sent my ships in fleets

          All up and down among the sheets;

          Or brought my trees and houses out,

          And planted cities all about.

 

          I was the giant great and still

          That sits upon the pillow-hill,

          And sees before him, dale and plain,

          The pleasant land of counterpane.

I don’t know if Robert Louis Stevenson intended the title to be a homophone with Counter pain, but the poem is about a sick child finding escape through his fantasies and imagination. It’s not much of a stretch to think that Counterpane is Robert Louis Stevenson’s own version of coping with illness through his ingenuity and creativity. In the titular poem of my collection, it’s about an autistic child, a young girl, who builds an entire city, names all of the plastic men and women, and whenever the real world became scary, she retreated to her model city of Counterpane, where she was queen, where everybody loved her. In that situation, the girl was mimicking what I was doing, and doing it at the same time; sometimes coping with reality is hard to do, especially for people with mental illnesses and addicts.

          Another book that is its title, and the book that made me recognize the concept, was my book The Make-Believe Ballroom. The story is about an old music teacher who was once a popular musician, but a car accident left him with brain damage and he didn’t really distinguish from the past and the future, but he was addicted to a type of medication to keep his heart rate down when he became afraid. This old drug addict decided to write a book called The Make-Believe Ballroom; in the book, he begins to lose distinction between the characters and real life and, in a nod to Blade Runner (which is based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), the fictional characters he creates realize they are characters and escape the book and demand a happy ending from their disabled author. It’s another instance of a writer writing about what he’s writing about. Or, better yet, it’s a writer writing about a writer writing about what a writer is writing about.

Real Fake Doors & the Authenticity of Fiction,4 April 2016

I recently had the chance to check out the hit television series, Rick and Morty. Now, I’m a huge fan of science fiction. It has always allowed people to look forward and to imagine how human beings would react to the unknown and unfamiliar. The tradition is ancient; the many instances of prehistoric human beings imagining the future. The ancient aliens phenomenon is simply, and effectively reduced to the simple and unavoidable truth: even our ancestors wrote science fiction.

The reason for its enduring popularity is this forward looking ideal, as It allows us to examine our nature, our past, and look to the next step in evolution and consciousness, our interaction with technology, and to other aspects of life that, in the realm of literary naturalism, are rarely explored. But the idea behind all fiction is the doorway, the doorway to empathy, to understanding the world in unique and imaginative ways. But it is a false construct, a portal, and rarely has the degree of depth and texture of the real world.

Naturalism and psychological realism are both ways by which we look through the eyes of others and learn something new and exciting about ourselves. Science fiction extends the possibilities of examining humanity.
In Rick and Morty, the characters are put to extremes you’re unlikely to find in Mansfield Park.

In the first season episode ‘Interdimensional Cable’, Rick replaces the cable box in the Smith family with a device that allows for the viewing of programming from an infinite number of parallel realities. Jerry, Beth, and Summer latch onto a property of the device which allows for them to see alternate versions of themselves – Real Fake Doors – which, itself, appears during the same episode as a commercial, advertising literally fake doors.

This has the effect of connecting the stories, providing a thematic link to the experience going on in the other room, where the Smith family is realizing how different their lives might have been had Beth not gotten pregnant. Jerry discovers that he’s a movie star and director, Beth finds a version of herself who has realized her dream of practicing medicine (on humans), while Summer… sees herself playing board games.

After Summer decides to run away and start a new life for herself (doing something with turquoise) while Jerry returns to the living room, where Rick and Morty are watching Ball Fondlers, as Beth remains in the kitchen, drinking wine and looking through a real fake door into a life without Jerry and subsequently without a family. In the living room, Rick and Jerry remain in the living room while Morty goes to convince Summer to stay with the family.

While flipping through channels, Rick and Jerry come across a low-speed chase involving an alternate Jerry, who shows up at beth’s alternate self, which she is watching through her goggles. She hears the doorbell ring and finds Jerry on her step, crying and pleading his undying love for her. She puts away the goggles – the REAL fake door in the episode, and opens a real one – reconciling with Jerry as Summer has been convinced to stay home, to give her family another chance.

The sci-fi tropes – alternate reality, space travel, time travel, interactions between humans and nonhuman beings and cultures and lets us look through these Real Fake Doors to see something true about the world and who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going. And sometimes we need to put down real fake doors and open a real real door, the doorway to the world.

Religion, Freedom, Fear & Panic (George Orwell) – 17 March 2016

THE ART OF OPPRESSION

AS MUCH AS ART AND LANGUAGE HAVE ENRICHED our lives and culture, it can be used as a means of personal advancement or attainment, and can be used, has been used as a tool to subdue and keep mute an illiterate public. As the best literature and music can be liberating, there is a darker side to this, something more nefarious. George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a future where literature does not set free the soul was as fantastical as it was grounded. Because, despite seeing its absurdity, we saw echoes of Orwell’s themes, if but vaguely, in our own lives — Big Brother is the judging eye that watches, an eye that judges, a figure that enforces law against thinking the wrong way. Wilson gets sent to the worst hotel room in history outside of a Holiday Inn, Room 101.

Big Brother is Watching You — everyone is familiar with the popular phrase from [Orwell’s] most popular work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, but its interpretation has often been limited to political interpretation. If you cast big brother as an abstract and put the entirety of creation under his charge, what do you get? An all seeing figure who’s always watching, always careful to ensure the rules laid forth are observed, and in waiting to punish if a tenet of the Law is broken. Big Brother, as an abstract, is more than a satire of the culture of personality which, like Boy Bands and iPhone releases, always seem to spring up despite all sensible people knowing how objectively terrible they are.

Nineteen Eight-Four appeals to the same sensibility to which ‘God is watching over us’ appeals. Except, by inverting the All Seeing Eye, by showing us the perversion of thought crime, the crime of love, the arbitrary torture — it’s easy to see Orwell is telling a story on two different thematic levels: the microcosm (the singular Big Brother and the singular idea such a figure represents. And there’s a perversion of this, and it’s happening now, right in the modern, progressive world: but not through the silent, watchful judgment of one centralized authority figure, we’ve cast ourselves as indignant,flattered voyeurs in the drama of the watchful, attentive eye presiding over the most mundane of our activities, whether it is a friend who follows you on Twitter.

John Taylor’s Seven Lesson Schoolteacher has a different approach to handling an authoritarian edifice and his lessons are the bricks in the edifice of the mind’s sometimes voluntary enslavement. It is a poignant testament to the quality of individuality and warning against subscribing to a belief system structured to control. When the information provided comes from the same body enacting the law, it is, no matter the brand of information—literature, media, radio—designed to control by fear and recruit by a promise such law givers are unable to keep.

In The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher, Gatto shows us what Dostoevsky, in Notes from Underground, called the ‘edifice of glass.’ Gatto shows the reality of totalitarianism in a distorted yet eerily similar America.  To paraphrase, a centralized order must not be questioned. No possible objections, logical, sensible or otherwise are to be taken seriously and those who make such objections do so to their disadvantage.

Mr. Gatto, as he wished to be called, was a school teacher who had taught for twenty-six years, winning many awards in the process. He outlines a subconscious and hidden curriculum that is unconsciously transmitted to every student in every school in the United States. These rules aren’t acknowledged, written, or made apparent but, as Mr. Gatto suggests, this is the only way students can be turned into functioning member of society—as he sees it.

What does it mean to function in a society if one has to be manipulated as a child to be able to do so? The seven universal lessons perpetuate what has done more to harm people throughout history, though it helps a select few, and could be interpreted as a list for the pros of making war upon your own government, as Shakespeare famously questioned in his treatment of the character in Richard II: is it ever right to overthrow a monarchy? When it is necessary for the following traits to be drilled into children in order to keep them in check, it most certainly is; I fall into another category on this position, which Leon Trotsky expressed so well in Literature and Revolution. 

‘Mechanical centralism is necessarily complemented by factionalism, which is at once a malicious caricature of democracy and a potential political danger.’

Mr. Gatto’s entire structure is built on factionalism. His seven universal lessons are meant to strengthen some factions to invite membership and conformity, and others are intended to keep those ‘unworthy’ are those for whom the rest of the rules were written. The seven universal rules are: confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and an admonition against anyone who notices the slavery of a system that confuses intentionally, gives to one side it created for itself, and addicts the rest to scraps because class position can only exist in a society confused and emotionally dependent. You can’t hide. Big brother is watching you. Take your soma and fall in line: this is the literature of enslavement. And the author of this material is a real man and really believes in these universal ‘laws’ of education.

Students are often taught a barrage of information, none of which is important to their lives, intended to work as an assembly line towards an end, a goal: to college, to graduate school, and finally to a job. This sort of cynical approach by a life-long teacher is disheartening; it is disheartening not because of one man’s belief, but those who rally behind his ideas of slavery are highly influential. Behind all the useless information is what the intended goal of this system is: there is this centralized element abhorrent to Trotsky, an element that might have made Shakespeare rethink his ideas of overthrowing a monarch.

The central command structure of knowledge reaches into the deep past of western philosophy. It’s in Plato’s The Republic, St. Augustine’s City of God, even Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Although it wasn’t published in his lifetime, Hobbes’ much better work, Behemoth, was forbidden by a king, a king who probably would’ve endorsed it, had he read it. Satires like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World were considered, in their time, to be ridiculous. These were not instant classics. And the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four nearly killed George Orwell; this brings us to what gave the English their first clear vision of totalitarianism.

AN HOMAGE TO ORWEL– On the Cult of Personality and Altar of Fear

BEFORE A SOCIAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL ANALYSIS of Orwell the man, writer of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, I would first like to say that I believe he was at his best in his non-fiction account of the Spanish Civil War—Homage to Catalonia.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Sixty years after the publication of Orwell’s mostly widely cited and read work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, that crystal first line sounds as natural and compelling as ever. But when you see the original manuscript, you find something else: not so much the ringing clarity, more the obsessive rewriting, in different inks, that betrays the extraordinary turmoil behind its composition.

Probably the definitive dystopian novel of the 20th century, a story that remains eternally fresh and contemporary, and whose terms such as ‘Big Brother,’ ‘doublethink,’ and ‘newspeak—all of which having become part of the everyday currency in the English lexicon, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been translated into more than 65 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, giving George Orwell a unique place in world literature.

The circumstances surrounding the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four make a haunting narrative that helps to explain the bleakness of Orwell’s dystopia. Here was an English writer, desperately sick, grappling alone with the demons of his imagination in a bleak Scottish outpost in the desolate aftermath of the Second World War. The idea for Nineteen Eighty-Four, alternatively, The Last Man in Europe, had been incubating in Orwell’s mind since the Spanish civil war.

His novel, which owes something to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian fiction We, probably began to take a definitive shape during 1943-44, around the time he and his wife Eileen adopted their only son, Richard. Orwell himself claimed that he was partly inspired by the meeting of the Allied leaders at the Tehran Conference of 1944. Isaac Deutscher, an Observer colleague, reported that Orwell was “convinced that Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt consciously plotted to divide the world” at Tehran.

Orwell had worked for David Astor’s Observer since 1942, first as a book reviewer and later as a correspondent. The editor professed great admiration for Orwell’s “absolute straightforwardness, his honesty and his decency,” and would be his patron throughout the 1940s. The closeness of their friendship is crucial to the story of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell’s creative life had already benefited from his association with the Observer in the writing of Animal Farm. As the war drew to a close, the fruitful interaction of fiction and Sunday journalism would contribute to the much darker and more complex novel he had in mind after that celebrated ‘fairy tale.’ It’s clear from Observer book reviews, for example, that he was fascinated by the relationship between morality and language.

There were other influences at work. The atmosphere of random terror in the everyday life of wartime London became integral to the mood of the novel-in-progress. Worse was to follow. In March 1945, while on assignment for the Observer in Europe, Orwell received news that his wife Eilee, had died under anesthesia during a routine operation.

Suddenly he was a widower and a single parent, eking out a threadbare life in his Islington lodgings, and working incessantly to dam the flood of remorse and grief at his wife’s premature death. In 1945, for instance, he wrote almost 110,000 words for various publications, including 15 book reviews for the Observer.

Then Astor stepped in. His family owned an estate on the remote Scottish island of Jura, next to Islay. There was a house, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the remote northern tip of this rocky finger of heather in the Inner Hebrides.

Initially, Astor offered it to Orwell for a holiday. Speaking to the Observer last week, Richard Blair says he believes, from family legend, Astor was taken aback by the enthusiasm of Orwell’s response.

In May 1946 Orwell, still picking up the shattered pieces of his life, took the train for the long and arduous journey to Jura. He told his friend Arthur Koestler that it was ‘almost like stocking up ship for an arctic voyage.’

It was a risky move; Orwell was not in good health. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the coldest of the century. Postwar Britain was bleak and Orwell always suffered from a chest pains and other anxiety-related pains. At least, cut off from the irritations of literary London, he was free to grapple unencumbered with the new novel. ‘Smothered under journalism,’ as he put it, he told one friend, ‘I have become more and more like a sucked orange.’

Ironically, part of Orwell’s difficulties derived from the success of Animal Farm. After years of neglect and indifference the world was waking up to his genius. ‘Everyone keeps coming at me,’ he complained to Koestler, ‘wanting me to lecture, to write commissioned booklets, to join this and that, etc.–you don’t know how I pine to be free of it all and have time to think again.’

On Jura he would be liberated from these distractions. The promise of creative freedom on an island in the Hebrides, however, came with its own, unique price. Years before, in the essay Why I Write, he described the struggle to complete a book: ‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist or [sic] understand. For all one knows that demon is the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality.’ It ends with the popular adage: ‘Good prose is like a window pane.’

From the spring of 1947 to his death in 1950 Orwell would re-enact every aspect of this struggle in the most painful way imaginable. Privately, perhaps, he relished the overlap between theory and practice. He had always thrived on self-inflicted adversity.

At first, after ‘a quite unendurable winter,’ he reveled in the isolation and wild beauty of Jura. ‘I am struggling with this book,’ he wrote to his agent, ‘which I may finish by the end of the year—at any rate I shall have broken the back by then so long as I keep well and keep off journalistic work until the autumn.’

Barnhill, overlooking the sea at the top of a potholed track, was not large, with four small bedrooms above a spacious kitchen. Life was simple, even primitive. There was no electricity. Orwell used Calor gas to cook and to heat water. Storm lanterns burned paraffin. In the evenings he also burned peat. He was still chain-smoking black shag tobacco in roll-up cigarettes: the fug in the house was cozy but not healthy. A battery radio was the only connection with the outside world.

Orwell, a gentle, unworldly sort of man, arrived with just a camp bed, a table, a couple of chairs and a few pots and pans. It was a Spartan existence but supplied the conditions under which he liked to work. He is remembered there as a spectre in the mist, a gaunt figure in oilskins.

At the end of May 1947 he told his publisher, Fred Warburg: ‘I think I must have written nearly a third of the rough draft. I have not got as far as I had hoped to do by this time because I really have been in most wretched health this year ever since about January (my chest as usual) and can’t quite shake it off.’

Mindful of his publisher’s impatience for the new novel, Orwell added: ‘Of course the rough draft is always a ghastly mess bearing little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job.’ Still, he pressed on, and at the end of July was predicting a completed ‘rough draft’ by October. After that, he said, he would need another six months to polish up the text for publication. This does not happen.

Part of the pleasure of life on Jura for George and his young son was the outdoor life—fishing, explore the island, and potter about in boats. In August, during a spell of lovely summer weather, Orwell, Avril, Richard and some friends, returning from a hike up the coast in a small motor boat, were nearly drowned in the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool.

Richard Blair remembers being ‘bloody cold’ in the freezing water, and Orwell, whose constant coughing worried his friends, did his lungs no favors. Within two months he was seriously ill. Typically, his account to David Astor of this narrow escape was laconic, even nonchalant.

The long struggle with The Last Man in Europe continued. In late October 1947, oppressed with ‘wretched health,’ Orwell recognized that his novel was still ‘a most dreadful mess and about two-thirds of it will have to be retyped entirely.’

He was working at a feverish pace. Visitors to Barnhill recall the sound of his typewriter pounding away upstairs in his bedroom. Then, in November, tended by the faithful Avril, he collapsed with ‘inflammation of the lungs’ and told Koestler that he was “very ill in bed”. Just before Christmas, in a letter to an Observer colleague, he broke the news he had always dreaded. Finally he had been diagnosed with TB.

A few days later, writing to Astor from Hairmyres hospital, East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, he admitted: ‘I still feel deadly sick,’ and conceded that, when illness struck after the Corryvreckan whirlpool incident, ‘like a fool I decided not to go to a doctor – I wanted to get on with the book I was writing.’

In 1947 there was no cure for TB; doctors could only prescribe fresh air regular diets. However, there was a new, experimental drug on the market, streptomycin. Astor arranged for a shipment to Hairmyres from the US.

Orwell’s son Richard believed his father was given excessive doses of this new drug. The side effects were horrific (throat ulcers, blisters in the mouth, hair loss, peeling skin and the disintegration of toe and fingernails; but in March 1948, after a three-month course, the TB symptoms had disappeared. ‘It’s all over now, and evidently the drug has done its stuff,’ Orwell told his publisher. ‘It’s rather like sinking the ship to get rid of the rats, but worth it if it works.’

As he prepared to leave hospital Orwell received the letter from his publisher which, in hindsight, would be another nail in the coffin. ‘It really is rather important,’ wrote Warburg to the star author, ‘from the point of view of your literary career to get it [the new novel] by the end of the year and indeed earlier if possible.’

Just when he should have been convalescing Orwell was back at Barnhill, deep into the revision of his manuscript, promising to deliver by ‘early December,’ and coping with ‘filthy weather’ on autumnal Jura. Early in October he confided to Astor: ‘I have got so used to writing in bed that I think I prefer it, though of course it’s awkward to type there. I am just struggling with the last stages of this bloody book [which is] about the possible state of affairs if the atomic war isn’t conclusive.’

This is one of Orwell’s exceedingly rare references to the theme of his book. He believed, as many writers do, that it was bad luck to discuss a work-in-progress. Later, to Anthony Powell, he described it as ‘a Utopia written in the form of a novel.’ The typing of the fair copy of The Last Man in Europe became another dimension of Orwell’s battle with his book. The more he revised his ‘unbelievably bad” manuscript the more it became a document only he could read and interpret. It was, he told his agent, “extremely long, even 125,000 words.’ With characteristic candor, he noted: ‘I am not pleased with the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied… I think it is a good idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it under the influence of TB.’

And he was still undecided about the title: ‘I am inclined to call it NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE,’ he wrote, ‘but I might just possibly think of something else in the next week or two.’ By the end of October Orwell believed he was done. Now he just needed a stenographer to help make sense of it all.

It was a desperate race against time. Orwell’s health was deteriorating, the ‘unbelievably bad’ manuscript needed retyping, and the December deadline was looming. Warburg promised to help, and so did Orwell’s agent. At cross-purposes over possible typists, they somehow contrived to make a bad situation infinitely worse. Orwell, feeling beyond help, followed his ex-public schoolboy’s instincts: he would go it alone.

By mid-November, too weak to walk, he retired to bed to tackle ‘the grisly job’ of typing the book on his “decrepit typewriter” by himself. Sustained by endless roll-ups, pots of coffee, strong tea and the warmth of his paraffin heater, with gales buffeting Barnhill, night and day, he struggled on. By 30 November 1948 it was virtually done.

Now Orwell, the old campaigner, protested to his agent that ‘it really wasn’t worth all this fuss. It’s merely that, as it tires me to sit upright for any length of time, I can’t type very neatly and can’t do many pages a day.’ Besides, he added, it was ‘wonderful’ what mistakes a professional typist could make, and, ‘in this book there is the difficulty that it contains a lot of neologisms.’

The typescript of George Orwell’s latest novel reached London in mid-December, as promised. Warburg recognized its qualities at once (‘amongst the most terrifying books I have ever read’) and so did his colleagues. An in-house memo noted ‘if we can’t sell 15 to 20 thousand copies we ought to be shot.’

By now Orwell had left Jura and checked into a TB sanatorium high in the Cotswolds. ‘I ought to have done this two months ago,’ he told Astor, ‘but I wanted to get that bloody book finished.’ Once again Astor stepped in to monitor his friend’s treatment but Orwell’s specialist was privately pessimistic.

As word of Nineteen Eighty-Four began to circulate, Astor’s journalistic instincts kicked in and he began to plan an Observer Profile, a significant accolade but an idea that Orwell contemplated ‘with a certain alarm.’ As spring came he was “having haemoptyses” (spitting blood) and ‘feeling ghastly most of the time’ but was able to involve himself in the pre-publication rituals of the novel, registering ‘quite good notices’ with satisfaction. He joked to Astor that it wouldn’t surprise him ‘if you had to change that profile into an obituary.’

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on 8 June 1949 (five days later in the US) and was almost universally recognized as a masterpiece, even by Winston Churchill, who told his doctor that he had read it twice. Orwell’s health continued to decline. In October 1949, in his room at University College hospital, he married Sonia Brownell, with David Astor as best man. It was a fleeting moment of happiness; he lingered into the new year of 1950. In the small hours of 21 January, George Orwell suffered a massive hemorrhage in hospital and died alone.

The news was broadcast on the BBC the next morning. Avril Blair and her nephew, still up on Jura, heard the report on the little battery radio in Barnhill. Richard Blair does not recall whether the day was bright or cold but remembers the shock of the news: his father was dead, aged 46.

David Astor arranged for Orwell’s burial in the churchyard at Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire. He lies there now, as Eric Blair, between HH Asquith and a local family of Gypsies.

Cont.

Why ‘1984’? 

Orwell’s title remains a mystery. Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in 1984), or perhaps to one of his favorite writer GK Chesterton’s story, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which is set in 1984.

In his edition of the Collected Works (20 volumes,) Peter Davison notes that Orwell’s American publisher claimed that the title derived from reversing the date, 1948, though there’s no documentary evidence for this. Davison also argues that the date 1984 is linked to the year of Richard Blair’s birth, 1944, and notes that in the manuscript of the novel, the narrative occurs, successively, in 1980, 1982 and finally, 1984. There’s no mystery about the decision to abandon The Last Man in Europe. Orwell himself was always unsure of it. It was his publisher, Fred Warburg who suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a more commercial title.

Freedom of speech

The effect of Nineteen Eighty-Four on our cultural and linguistic landscape has not been limited to either the film adaptation starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, with its Naziesque rallies and chilling soundtrack, nor the earlier one with Michael Redgrave and Edmond O’Brien.

It is likely, however, that many people watching the Big Brother series on television (in the UK, let alone in Angola, Oman or Sweden, or any of the other countries whose TV networks broadcast programmes in the same format) have no idea where the title comes from or that Big Brother himself, whose role in the reality show is mostly to keep the peace between scrapping, swearing contestants like a wise uncle, is not so benign in his original incarnation. Apart from pop-culture renditions of some of the novel’s themes, aspects of its language have been leapt upon by libertarians to describe the curtailment of freedom in the real world by politicians and official—alarmingly, nowhere and never more often than in contemporary Britain.

Orwellian

 Room 101

Some hotels have refused to call a guest bedroom number 101—rather like those tower blocks that don’t have a 13th floor—thanks to the Orwellian concept of a room that contains whatever its occupant finds most impossible to endure. Like Big Brother, this has spawned a modern TV show: in this case, celebrities are invited to name the people or objects they hate most in the world.

Thought police

An accusation often levelled at authoritative governments, or arenas in public in which ideas or speech are being restricted; any conglomeration designed to bleep or blur, remove or ‘correct’ literature, hide and suppress ideas.

Newspeak

For Orwell, freedom of expression was not just about freedom of thought but also linguistic freedom. This term, denoting the narrow and diminishing official vocabulary, has been used ever since to denote jargon currently in vogue with those in power.

Doublethink

Hypocrisy with a twist. Rather than choosing to disregard a contradiction in your opinion, if you are doublethinking, you are deliberately forgetting that the contradiction is there. This subtlety is mostly overlooked by people using the accusation of ‘doublethink’ when trying to accuse an adversary of being hypocritical—but it is a very popular word with people who like a good debate with their beer. If I may: everything is good with beer—if you have the beer first.

IN THE BHAGAVAD-GITA, THE HINDU HOLY BOOK, we find the great archer and warrior, Arjuna, with his charioteer, and avatar of Vishnu, Krisha—of questionable fame stemming from an event earlier in life, having been caught stealing butter–allegedly. They are poised between two massive armies lined up to fight one another. He looks at both sides and finds relatives, fathers and sons, ready to slaughter one another in this battle. In his confusion and anguish, he cries out for guidance. To guide him, Krishna speaks to him as the supreme God of Gods, almighty Time, and instructs him the way of the Yoga.

The war, like so many of what is herein discussed, is an externalization used to illustrate the conflict inside oneself, the kind of conflict that every person has when it comes to choosing, when it comes to differentiating between what is right and what is wrong. Krishna appeared before him as a beacon of light in a time of darkness. He has since appeared to millions as the same light, to lead people from eternal return (For modern comparison, consider Groundhog Day) from what Krishna calls ‘the transient world of sorrow.’

The main thing that appealed to me about this ancient text is just pure beauty. Transience, I believe, is the major theme, the mortality of everything alive on the earth. In describing this to Arjuna, the transience of life and its luxuries, Krishna consoles and reminds Arjuna of his purpose, thereby escorting him out of darkness. What Krishna reveals to him cripples Arjuna and he is left shaking with fear and awe, saying, ‘Thy tears are for those beyond tears; and are thy words words of wisdom? The wise grieve not for those who live; they grieve not for those who died. Life and death will pass away.’

By this I believe he was saying that emotional and physical states exist in finite space, unable to last forever, and reasons that life, like death, will someday pass away into another sphere of existence, beyond eternal return.

‘Because we have all been for all time, I, and thou,’ he says. ‘We all shall be for all time, forever, and forever more.’

It appears in his words that Krishna relates the human body to be nothing but a vessel, like a physical ship to carry the ships’ captain, then, when the physical ship is no longer set afloat, the captain moves on to find another ship, only to be imprisoned again, like smoke inside a bottle until reincarnation, where we’re trapped again inside a body in the miserable cycle of eternal return.

Krishna appears before him as all powerful Time, with, ‘…multitudes rushing into him and pouring out of him as he devours them all, destroys everything.’

Krishna says, “I am all powerful time, and I have come here to slay these men. Fight, or fight not; all these men will die.”

After the mortal body is shed, ‘As the spirit of our mortal body wanders on in childhood, and in you and old age, the spirit moves to a new body,’ Krishna believes the evaluating mid-mind, the mind behind the body, passes in and out of light and dark, between worlds, reliving one cycle of life and death without ever finding something that lasts forever, something that is forever tangible. The spirit, however, is forever to him; this is a good idea, as death is relegated to nothing but a temporary shedding of a body: ‘Interwoven in [his] creation, the spirit is beyond destruction. No one can bring an end to the everlasting spirit or an end to something which had no beginning.’

Once someone escapes the transient world, Krishna instructs, he will dwell beyond time in these bodies, though our bodies have an end in their times, but we remain immeasurable, immortal. With these words, Krishna tells us to carry on our noble fight and noble struggles against the depreciating forces of all of life.

The highest goal for him is a goal familiar to Buddhists: asceticism. ‘From the world of senses,’ Krishna says, again beautifully illustrating transience, ‘comes fire and ice, pleasure and pain. They come and go for they are transient. Arise above them, strong soul.’

These words have encouraged and inspired millions of people; from east of the globe to west, every day for thousands of years, this has the quality of liberation. As the Persian poet wrote: A king wished to have a phrase that would cheer him when sad and sadden him when joyful:

This too shall pass.

 The tone of the piece is intended to convey a liberating, lasting peace—an acceptance and eagerness to dispel disillusion and ignorance, to grow closer to the laws of the world and universe, a universe that is god made manifest—this is, in essence, what is called Brahma. It is a call for people to be honorable and kind to others. I’m not a religious person. I am however not ignorant of what this gives to culture and the arts. From a secular perspective, The Bhagavad-Gita is one of the greatest works of literature ever produced by mankind. There is much to take away, to learn, to believe. Acceptance of the supernatural is not necessary to learn and benefit from this cultural jewel.

The Bhagavad-Gita is a beacon of light, a candle in the dark. All cultures in some form or another produce these spiritual and religious texts. The dependence on the supernatural varies, but the message is universal: good for the sake of goodness and kindness for its own sake, while it will earn you no medals or honorary titles, is what lasting peace demands. If the world worked in this way, if everyone was motivated to not only improve themselves but the world around them, a peaceful world becomes possible. In a free world, there is no need to govern, or for government. Government is a euphemism for organized, demanded control.

Confucius, the proverbial wise old man, is credited with the composition of The Analects. In it, Confucius believed himself to be nothing more than a carrier of knowledge. Nothing divine, nothing unique or supernatural, not an inventor but a curator in the museum of our artistic history. Confucian intended to ‘reinvigorate’ what is called the mandate of heaven. Although he claimed to be but a messenger, he is, nevertheless, credited with the most famous of all axioms: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

With great subtlety and emphasis on learning and growing, Confucius left behind a legacy that has had a lasting impact on the world for thousands of years. The Analects are not the only source for Chinese philosophy: Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching, The Teachings and Sayings of Chuang Tzu, and the iconic I-Ching, or Book of Changes, are cultural treasures, and inherently consistent in tone and content, giving this brand of Eastern philosophy a unique consistency in an otherwise muddled, frustrated series of contradictive versions.

‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.’

Lines like this are the sun, the light to the lofty and pretentious little quote-loving moth in us all.

In keeping with the tone and aloofness of Eastern philosophy, generally speaking, The Analects echo the Book of Changes, Confucius says, ‘The only constant is change.’

This axiom is but a small notch above pandering tautology; yet we’re still drawn to it. Quotes in this vein are uniquely popular and for good reason. Sometimes one can, without true effort and study, get a good summary or imbibe the essence of a work of art with a cursory glimpse and partial, sometimes non-representative quote. However, this quote is representative and conveys a valuable message. The intention is to raise awareness, to make us more aware of ourselves and changing moods and their relation to the seasons, the cycle of life and death, destruction and renewal. As with The Bhagavad-Gita; it is another mantra urging us to accept the inevitability of the transient, the ephemeral among what is truly immortal, or never-changing.

In the religions of independently evolving cultures, we find, over and over, a connection, a branching out across time and space; in this there is a surprising consistency in the essential message, ‘It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under heaven, who can give its full development to his nature. Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can do the same to the nature of other men.’

Confucius’s philosophy is a call to the most ambitious of our characters to look for wisdom and sincerity.

‘Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles. Then no friends would not be like yourself (all friends would be as loyal as yourself.) If you make a mistake, do not be afraid to correct it.’

This is unique among quasi-religious texts: this is a eukaryotic idea within, what is by nature, a prokaryotic art-form.

In all the philosophies and religions produced by mankind, within each is some sort of promise, some hint of shelter from whatever storms in which we struggle—and a promised liberation, a refuge to come, a refuge for each moment needed.

Why Twilight’s Shittiness Should Inspire You

When I first saw the trailer for the first Twilight movie, I immediately thought that Bella was a poorer version of a far better character from a series that was quite popular at the time – Harry Potter. Bella was lifted, perhaps cynically, by the writer and the publisher, right out of JK Rowling’s popular series. Though many of you who have read the Harry Potter series and Twilight, respectively, you’ll notice one unavoidable fact: JK Rowling is a gifted and imaginative storyteller. Stephanie Meyer is not. A good panderer, perhaps. But a good author? I think not. And yet…

Stephanie Meyer was advanced £700,000 to write the Harry Potter knock off, Twilight. Because they were interested in the next best selling franchise, not the best new author to take on. Admittedly, there are a lot of differences between the two series, apart from one being absolute shit. Both use the fantasy genre to look at kid’s issues, both involve creatures from legend and extensive lore. But most importantly, for publishers, it was a series, and designed to appeal to young adults – who are not famous for their discerning palette when it comes to literature. So it became a successful series, and so on, which led to the derivative of the derivative – 50 Shades of Grey – which went on to be successful as well.

Why that should inspire you

Have you ever been reading a really good book, and imagining, hoping that one day you’d be able to write such a great story? I’ve always wanted to be a writer. And I’ve read books that made me feel like giving up completely. I think it’s common for writers to see other great books and be intimidated by the author, or feel like they’ll never be able to write like that.

The first time I read Proust, I put the book down and just spiraled into envy and depression. I will never write as well as Proust. And I’m sure many people, young and aspiring authors, felt like that while reading Harry Potter. But here’s the difference – when Twilight and subsequently 50 Shades of Grey became successful – those same kids, I think, or at least some of them, thought – I can do this. And thousands of aspiring writers around the world thought the same thing: if this shit can be published, I can get published.

Thus, a generation of would be writers realized their ability, or at least should have been galvanized to write their stories and try to get their writing noticed – by the success of these derivative works of absolute shit, hundreds of thousands of people who may have otherwise never felt their work was good enough to be published were given absolute proof, or the proof they needed to get started, that they might not be the best writers – and if you’re reading this, and you want to be a writer, the same is true for you – you might not be Proust or JK Rowling, but you can damn sure do better than fucking Twilight.

Hypothetical Heroes & The Totem of Fear, short – 6 January 2015

Think back, if you would, to any of the innumerable tragedies that have befallen any group of people. Now, picture the celebration for the hero who would have done something to stop it, cheered on for doing nothing, nothing, that is, except firmly affixing the blame – someone the hypothetical hero needs to be the bogeyman, as someone must stand trial in evaluation of the hypothetical king, the hypothetical must give the jury the right person to hold responsible, make it nice and tidy and simple, and if the totem best represents the fear of the kingmakers, the hypothetical hero will be made the king of 20/20, the emperor of almost, the sovereign lord of maybe.

In the wake of any tragedy, two groups will emerge: one seeking to make it less likely to happen again, the other seeking to show how it could have been prevented. And whenever any group is formed, there will be a few jostling for power at the top and, knowing the greater majority will seek to follow, so seek to sure up their claim for the top by getting more support from others at the bottom, hoping that the support beneath them adds up to a taller column than what other potential leaders have gathered.

Sometimes the hopeful higher-ups can be talked into a higher low position, if they add their column bearers to the others’ power column. This lets someone who wants to be on top spare themselves the indignity of being on bottom, or being thought of as beneath anyone. Still, people are not won over so easily.

If you wish to be someone’s hero, first you must give them a villain, or create one, look into their hearts and find what scares them the most. Then you turn that into a galvanizing totem of fear. Once you have potential column bearers afraid, to become their king, you have to play the hero by convincing them that everything will work out, even when they don’t, because you’re on the tallest column, taller than the totem of their fears.

The last thing you have to do – and this is crucial – is convince the column bearers that if they remain underneath it, the bottom will look just like the view from the top. If you can convince someone that up is down and down is up, they’ll make you king.

Hypothetically.

The question remains, however, what drives similar people to make such wildly dissimilar choices – that of wishing to be on top of the column or to support one? Comfort – the need to be protected or safe manifest in different ways, distinctly different: to be Caesar or have the honor of serving the great protector Caesar.

On Villainy – The Projection Mirror, 31 December 2015

Have you ever noticed how many protagonists in film and literature are orphans or otherwise without a family? From Oliver Twist to Harry Potter, writers have used the family dynamic as a disadvantage for a long, long time, as a way to build a subconscious, pre-developed handicap that affords the characters a type of pity and sympathy, to get you on their side from the start.

One of the most important ingredients in any story is a relatable character, a character the readers will care about, to get their mirror neurons firing, as a way to get you to see some part of yourself in the characters. And by putting them through great adversity, it only further brings you over to their side. It’s interesting, the more you see someone suffer, if you’re not a sociopath, the more you want to see them prevail. And even, sometimes, you may want to see a villain prevail, a character that should probably be condemned – because you understand their motivations and relate to them. For good or ill.

In Kubrick’s film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel ‘A Clockwork Orange’ – for the first half of the film, the anti-hero Alex is an irredeemable murderer and rapist (with surprisingly good taste in music) and yet, after his conditioning and subsequent torture, you come round to his side, or at least to a side that doesn’t want to see his continued suffering. This taps into what I think most (again, non-sociopathic) people have – a projection mirror – something we use to view ourselves as other people, putting ourselves in the story as their stand-in, trying to feel out how we might react in similar situations. It’s similar to a power fantasy, as it lets us admire ourselves by the recognition of our virtue by proxy.

This works in storytelling because it taps into our desires, desires formed by weakness, the sense of being less than, the passion and desperation to be more than we are, to get beyond our limitations and triumph in the end. In a character journey, the second act is usually when they’re brought to their lowest, being pummeled by forces beyond their control, beaten relentlessly, beaten until you feel like you’re struggling with them. This makes their eventual triumph all the more satisfying. Because we get to feel, if we can relate, some sense of triumph too. We go through their arc with them, from their lowest to their peak, and in those moments, in the best of stories, we may feel victorious too.

You could say the same for villains, as our relationship with villainy is equally complex, in the way we relate to them, and our perverse attraction to the macabre, to the extremes of love and violence. And evil.

What comes to mind when you think about evil? Hitler? Stalin? An obvious monster in the past? What comes to mind when you think of something that scares you? The dark? Car wrecks or serial killers? Dying? I don’t think that’s an incorrect response. But for me, I’ve always thought that the less obvious danger is more terrifying than something that advertises itself, and that undercurrent of fear that imbues every single moment with tension, that troubles me more than demons. The monsters that blend in with saints are scarier than fangs and horns and the monsters of our mythology and imagination. But we’re drawn to monsters, to villains. Villains we recognize, like Jack Torrance from The Shining – these characters can be terrifying in ways that vampires and zombies never will be. Because we know victims of domestic abuse, and alcoholism. And people with extreme cases of writers block.

villai.jpg

What makes Jack a good villain, I think, is our ability to emphasize with his struggle, and, shamefully, our ability recognize some part of ourselves in them.

To contrast these types of villains – the obvious monster and the more subtle villain – Look at the Harry Potter series. Who’s the bad guy? Voldemort, assholes. That’s who (must not be named). He’s irredeemably evil and selfish  and would be the most terrifying character in the series to piss off.

Lordvoldemort
The worst Secret Santa in history.

But was he the most hated character? Let’s look back at the 5th movie/book in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Over the course of that one book, Voldemort uses what is basically mind control to manipulate Harry into retrieving a prophecy from the ministry of magic. It’s like a government building off limit to non-government officials. Now, how do you manipulate a child into breaking into the Pentagon and stealing classified prophecies? You plant delusions in their dreams. That’s what that noseless fucker did.

Think about what this implies: when this villain wants you to do something, he can make you do it – through fear and torture and hypnosis, and he does it so well that he tricks Harry into traveling hundreds of kilometers, from Hogwarts to London, in the night, to save someone who is not really in danger, someone who only becomes endangered because of Harry’s ‘saving people complex’ – some that hermione flat out tells him, knowing that if Voldemort wanted to manipulate him, that’s how he’d do it. And he does it. Harry arrives at the ministry with the rest of Dumbledore’s Army only to be ambushed by death eaters immediately.

Sirius is killed in the ensuing fight, Harry only survives because Dumbledore arrives in time, is briefly possessed by an evil sorcerer who’s using a torture curse on him. Harry loses his one link to a possible family. He loses someone he loves, someone who loves him, and yet, who do you hate more? Yes, more than Voldemort. Think pink.

Dolores-Umbridge
Her boggart is a happy child.

Yep, I hate everything about this bitch. First, she uses torture as a means of punishment, and probably wouldn’t hesitate to hurt someone. But would she murder a child? Probably not. Yes, she tries to kick Professor Trelawney out of Hogwart’s for being absolute shit at her job. And that’s terrible, obviously. But at the beginning of The Deathly Hallows, Voldemort feeds the Muggle Studies Professor (Professor Charity Burbage) to a fucking snake… In front of guests! At the dinner table, no less! And still, despite all of that, who is it easier to hate?

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You can rest at ease knowing she was mauled by centaurs. Whew.

What gives? Obviously she wasn’t as bad as Voldemort, as he was a mass murderer, a sadist, someone very much willing to torture and even kill children. He kills his father, his grandfather, his grandmother, and his uncle and grandparents on his mother’s side. He kills a flirtatious lady just to take her cup. Murder! Murder for a cup! And yet, most of us are so far removed from such monsters that an evil like that is not something we can understand. But a browbeating authoritarian, strictly adhering to rules and seeking to impose her idea of order – that we recognize. That’s something we understand, and that’s why we find it impossible not to hate her character –  we’ve encountered it in our own lives.

Villains like Voldemort, and Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, The Emperor from Star Wars, they may scare us as children. But it’s harder to hate them because of their lack of humanity. But assholes like Umbridge, we hate them because we know them. I’ve never been attacked by a magical Hitler or a pissed off eyeball, but I’ve been given detention for absolute bullshit by a brow-beating asshole. 

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If lightsabers existed, I’d be in Azkaban. If it existed.

Mark Rothko Turns Down Millions of Dollars to Give Seagram’s the Finger

During the 60s, while America was collectively drugging themselves into fucking oblivion, artists like Andy Warhol and his soup cans, as well as other pop artists like Lichtenstein and Rosencrests, prospered while artists representing the abstract expressionism and avant-garde movement in America languished in obscurity.

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The delicate lines and overt irreverence represent the inner struggles of go fuck yourself.

Meanwhile, abstract expressionist Mark Rothko painted a metric fuckton of mystifying panels on other colors, known by art historians as multiforms. Just color on color, foregoing resemblance and likeness, celebrating the performance of the colors themselves and their interactions with other colors. download

You see, Rothko had a long and agonizing career trying to get somewhere with his work. He dropped out of Yale University because of a god damn Jew quota. Seriously. He spent years trying to find his voice, something that could exist outside of the white noise of the modern world, and found it in his weird-ass alien landscapes.

rockko

Seriously. He would go on to make a fucking mint with these paintings, receiving the kind of attention and selling for the kind of prices you’d expect to be the GDP of French Polynesia. He was approached by the board of the then under-construction corporate headquarters for the Seagram’s Building in New York City. He was offered $37,000 to paint the murals, which, as you would imagine, is, adjusted for inflation, nearly $2 million.

DARKR

Go fuck yourself, French Polynesia!

The Fuck You

After Rothko visited the restaurant where his paintings were to hang, he decided he would never let his paintings hang in the same building as people who “would spend that kind of money on food”. In the end he decided to donate his Seagram’s murals to an exhibit to honor Holocaust survivors, but it would never come to be. He would later take an offer to hang his darker work in a chapel in Houston. He gave his work away rather than hang it in a gaudy restaurant, and this fuck you cost him severely. He would later commit suicide, leaving his cathedral of multiforms as a somber gallery dedicated solely to say fuck you, to money and the conventions of art.

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Speaking of conventions…

Next week (or when I finish) Van Gogh vs the conventions of art and the world –

https://brandonknobles.com/2015/12/16/vincent-van-gogh-vs-everybody/

 

 

Nostalgia – the Romance of Memory, 26 November 2015

The other day I set up an old Nintendo 64 for my son. It was one of the first gaming consoles to feature (almost) exclusively 3D games, pioneering features common today, things you damn kids will never appreciate. Get off my polygonal lawn, whatever the fuck a tween is! (Whatever it is, I hope it hurts).

You see, I wanted to show my son what I enjoyed as a kid, and hoped to share that excitement with him, the kind of excitementI felt I played Super Mario 64 for the first time. The joy of flipping around and flying and destroying large fucking lizard… reptile… whatever the fuck Bowser is. We booted the game up and started a game, and started playing.

It was quite fun, the familiar sights and sounds. The joy, in some instances in our lives, the way we feel about certain songs and films, we sometimes love it more for the memory of the happiness it once brought, tying it to a prior happiness in a vain

The other day I set up an old Nintendo 64 for my son. It was one of the first gaming consoles to feature (almost) exclusively 3D games, pioneering features common today, things you damn kids will never appreciate. Get off my polygonal lawn, whatever the fuck a tween is! (Whatever it is, I hope it hurts).

You see, I wanted to show my son what I enjoyed as a kid, and hoped to share that excitement with him, the kind of excitementI felt I played Super Mario 64 for the first time. The joy of flipping around and flying and destroying large fucking lizard… reptile… whatever the fuck Bowser is. We booted the game up and started a game, and started playing.

It was quite fun, the familiar sights and sounds. The joy, in some instances in our lives, the way we feel about certain songs and films, we sometimes love it more for the memory of the happiness it once brought, tying it to a prior happiness in a vain attempt to hold on to some measure of it, of the happiness we had as kids.

So when my son showed no interest in Super Mario, I said, Alright god dammit, I’m going to show you the greatest game of all time – The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time, widely considered the best game of all time. And not just back when it came out, but within the last few years, even Watchmojo listed it as the best game of all time – so it really was great, game changing, and revolutionary. So we sat down to play.

The familiar music came on and it touched that special part of the brain, the kind reserved for songs from our childhood, the alphabet song,Mozart and Fur Elise, like Star Wars, the part of our memory that doesn’t judge or evaluate it the way we judge and evaluate as adults.

We’ve got a new Star Wars film coming up, and by all accounts it’ll be pretty awesome. But then the trailer comes out – the first thing that rattled people’s minds was the black stormtrooper. I don’t think there’s any racism in that reaction, at least not for the most part, but the response to a change – a change most of us didn’t like to begin with. And then there’s a lightsaber with a ridiculous little hilt! How stupid! Yet the first Star Wars film had a major character that was basically a walking, unintelligible lump of hair. And the Empire Strikes Back had a green muppet who taught a farm boy how to lift a spaceship with his goddamn mind. But a lightsaber with a hilt? Blasphemy!

Again this is the difference between evaluating things as a child instead of as an adult. And the memory of this happiness is tinged with the memory of an actual happy time, when something new is celebrated for its newness, not because it broke with tradition – and what is nostalgia but the celebration of familiar because of it was once amazing because it was new and different.

And from playing Ocarina of Time with my son – one of my favorite games of all time – I realized that, though it was new to him, it would never mean the same thing to both us. To him, his memory of playing Ocarina of Time will just be time he spent with his dad, who’s 30 years old! Uh! and trying to be cool. And for me, I’ll just have more good memories to associate with that game, as time I got to spend with my son.